Why free play outside should be a part of every PE program

Why free play outside should be a part of every PE program

Physical education doesn’t just happen in a gymnasium. I’m a big proponent of active free play outside during physical education (PE) class. In my PE classes, I plan for quite a lot of it when the weather allows. There are so many benefits of free play outside that cannot be replicated in the gymnasium.

In most gymnasiums, the games and the rules are set by the teacher. Even if the teacher allows for free play in the gymnasium, students are limited by the four walls, the ceiling, and the equipment that’s available.

I find that some students just shine during free play outside. They move more because they own the game. It’s not me telling them what to do. They are the creators, the organizers, the referees, and the players all at once. That, to me, is what physical literacy is all about.

I once brought a group outside and a few girls organized a game of Capture the Flag (a game I’d taught them the previous year). Their game started with eight players and by the end of the hour, 23 children were playing.

That day, they definitely demonstrated their physical literacy. They used their knowledge and understanding to organize the game. They showed great confidence and motivation to become the needed leaders at the time. Lastly, the students showed their physical competence and engagement in being active. Had I decided what they were going to play, I would have robbed them of that great leadership opportunity.

Related read: The confidence formula

During active free play outside, I can truly see my students’ physical literacy at work. Are they motivated to move? Are they confident movers? Can they swing across the monkey bars? Can they jump and land properly? Do they have enough leadership skills to organize their own active games? How well do they communicate and collaborate with other students?

As a PE teacher, I use these observations as an assessment tool. As I observe my students in active free play, I write down notes. I then use my notes to write valuable comments on report cards. My notes and observations are also used to modify my annual planning if necessary. Depending on what I observe, I can decide what to focus on for the following weeks or months.

I hope that many more PE teachers plan active free play outside. What other opportunities do students have to play freely with their classmates? Often, recesses are too short to find friends, organize a game, and play. Or sometimes there are just too many children on the play structure to hang upside down safely.

After spending an entire weekend training to become a Forest School practitioner, I am doubling down on my opinion. There are just too many movement opportunities and health benefits to ignore the importance of active free play outside during physical education.

8 responses to “Why free play outside should be a part of every PE program

  1. I’m late to the game here, but I was looking for an article on outdoor play during PE and came across your article. I totally am in sync with what you are saying. Just this last year when I had a small window of in-person time with my students, I had my preschool and kinder students play outside in the playground. However, instead of simply telling them to go play, I told showed them four different pieces of equipment (it’s a big playground), and told them they could choose amongst them. I was looking for certain skills, like hanging, balancing, jumping, etc. and I sat back and observed and took notes as you mentioned. The kids loved it, I was able to make some valuable observations in a natural setting, and we were outside. It felt way more authentic this way. So thanks for sharing your insight here.

  2. It’s an interesting contradiction to use the idea of free play in a lesson. To achieve free play we must remove adult intent and adult determined outcomes. Our role is to enable choices within a diverse enabling environment.
    Once you determine an outcome that you decide the child should achieve, such as physical activity, the activity you are providing will be unlikely to be free play.
    Playful learning is a way teachers deliver outcome focused learning in an enjoyable and exploratory style with some open ended options but it is a very different process to free play.
    Children need times when they determine the content, intent and process of their actions. Free play is hugely valuable to all aspects of childhood. If we are serious in our efforts to give children the free play opportunities they need, we must reflect on our own actions and intentions

  3. On occasion, we take our physical education classes to the neighbourhood park/creative playground. The students can’t wait for us to tell them they can run for the park! There, they quickly organize themselves into groups to play games like “grounders” or they challenge themselves and their classmates on the monkey bars, the rotating apparatus or the swings. They explore different ways to use the equipment, they go up the slides and down, they take turns and they look out for one another. It’s magical watching them simply play without adult intervention (except when necessary). There are rarely other opportunities for them to play at the park with so many peers at the same time!

      1. Sorry, but free play is physical activity… and a good thing. But it is the product of quality physical education. Teaching games and rules in elementary physical education aren’t necessarily a significant element of quality PE either! Skill acquisition should be the major emphasis trumped only by students having fun while acquiring the knowledge and skills to become physically active for a lifetime (Dr. George Graham). Skill development leads to small sided and modified game play. Try having students accrue points for their team when you recognize a skill being performed as taught, regardless of the outcome. I’ve found modified volleyball game play with the aforementioned strategy is well received by 3rd – 5th graders.

  4. Thank you for reading and taking the time to ask questions.

    Free play during recess doesn’t have to be active and teachers don’t evaluate and provide feedback.

    During physical education, there are some conditions to free play. Students need to be active. To help them, I will often leave out equipment that they don’t always hace access to during a regular recess. It goes without saying, you need to make links to the PE curriculum (more on that below).

    Also, outdoor free play during PE requires the teacher to change their teaching style.

    For example:
    – Emergent learning
    – Inquiry-based learning
    – Play-based learning
    – Experiential learning

    I will often use outdoor free play for a diagnostic evaluation (paragraphs 6 & 7).

    Here are the different expectations from the Ontario curriculum that can be observed:

    – Apply, to the best of their ability, a range of social-emotional learning skills as they acquire knowledge and skills in connection with the expectations in the Active Living, Movement Competence, and Healthy Living strands for this grade.

    – Participate actively and regularly in a wide variety of physical activities, and demonstrate an understanding of how physical activity can be incorporated into their daily lives.

    – Demonstrate responsibility for their own safety and the safety of others as they participate in physical activities.

    – Perform movement skills, demonstrating an understanding of the basic requirements of the skills and applying movement concepts as appropriate, as they engage in a variety of physical activities.

    – Apply movement strategies appropriately, demonstrating an understanding of the components of a variety of physical activities, in order to enhance their ability to participate successfully in those activities.

    These can be co-constructed prior to allowing them free outdoor play time.

    In Ontario, when we evaluate, we need to collect evidence of learning via conversations, observations, and products.

  5. How do you set up free play outside for PE without it just becoming recess? Can you give some examples of lessons or how you set it up? What does it look like? What equipment? What limitations do you give them?

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